Democracy: the Writing on the Road

Forget the shenanigans about Tory Party partying, something far more insidious it taking place; something eating away at the foundations of British democracy. Socialised distraction is just a cover for doing so.

As Boris Johnson knows all too well, insecurity is the handmaiden of authoritarianism. Create it and you erode public confidence in an array of democratic rights painfully fought for over centuries.

So it is now. Under the cloak of Covid insecurity, Brexit cock-up, climate crises and supply bottlenecks, Johnson’s government is rolling back the frontiers of democracy at an alarming rate. The libertarian Right rails against having to wear masks on public transport and in shops, but says nothing about greater liberties they would gleefully remove in the grotesque Police Bill.

The press seem happy to aid and abet this process, more enthusiastically chasing stories about the anti-mask ‘party’ antics rather than anti-democratic ones. There is, however, an important link between the two. It is the conflict between the politics of individualism and collectivism; encapsulated, paradoxically, by the brothers Corbyn.

A tale of two Corbyns

If you are lucky you will have missed the self-promoting, anti-mask video by Jeremy Corbyn’s half-baked brother, Piers. It wasn’t just his singing that was painful/awful. The whole thing was only noticed because it traded on the Corbyn name.

Piers’ rejection of masks – and their ability to limit the spread of airborne particles as a vector for Covid transmission – flies in the face of medical evidence. The high point of his scientific claims was that masks are no more effective than “keeping a fart inside his trousers”. This fatuously missed the point.

Even on his best day, ‘les pets de Piers’ never result in 145,000 deaths and over 600,000 hospital admissions. Covid has done. Moreover, Piers’ protests are not fundamentally about Covid, but the politics of ‘me’. This is where neoliberalism has taken us.

From Thatcher to Blair to now, consumerism and individualism became the centre-stage of British politics. Privatisation was badged as the empowerment of individuals, free to make our own choices, unencumbered by the constraints of the state.

With barely a flicker of recognition, we lost something far more important than anything gained. From the moment I was born to the first stages of privatisation I had lived my life as a ‘citizen’. Privatisation (and deregulation) turned me into a ‘consumer’. The big difference was that as a citizen I had rights – the same as everyone else – and duties that came with this too. As a ‘consumer’ I had new rights, but only if I had the ability to purchase. Neoliberalism marketised my rights and minimised it’s (and my) obligations to society.

At the heart of today’s crises stands this unacknowledged sense of loss.

If there are answers to both the Covid pandemic and to the climate crisis they will be found in reclaiming the interdependencies that come along with citizenship – and the personal limitations that come with it too.

Jeremy Corbyn understands this all too well. His has been a lifetime of campaigning for the collective rights of the underdog, the marginalised, the excluded. It is why you would be more likely to find Jeremy supporting those actively involved in the ‘Insulate Britain’ protests than in any anti-mask ones.

Look at the profile of those who glue themselves to motorway road surfaces or to the vehicles of police officers sent to arrest them. Protesters cross every age cohort. Not one of them demands a personal liberty to do as they please. All are making a point about future generations and the rights of others; be they households trapped in the fuel poverty of dank and dreary homes or future generations trapped in a world too stupid to save itself from climate chaos. Jeremy would be with them all.

So, while Piers farts about with the moral outrage of the Tory Right, Jeremy would confront the ideological juggernaut that threatens to dismantle British democracy. This juggernaut currently comes in the form of the government’s Police Bill. Other crises stand in the way of our seeing how draconian this is; including the curtailment of even a right to debate some of its anti-protest laws.

After processing the Bill in the Commons (and completing its Second Reading in the Lords) the government introduced 18 pages of new law. The whole scrutiny process of these new clauses was squeezed into one late night Lords’ sitting. As Labour’s Lord Falconer observed, “The Commons have been excluded, the Lords marginalised, Parliament neutralised”. All he failed to add was Rosa Luxembourg’s cautionary warning:

“Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”

With the prospects of climate breakdown accelerating by the day, ‘barbarism’ is not too wild an accusation to throw at Britain’s feet. Current policy making revolves around symptoms, divisions and distractions rather than the root causes of the crises we face.

So it was that energy companies were able to shrug their shoulders at weeklong electricity blackouts following the storms that disconnected great swathes of Scotland and northern England. But a huge issue of energy market failure and/or corporate negligence found itself coming a poor second to press coverage of Tory Party partying.

Energy companies were even allowed to get away with absurd claims that ‘the wrong sort of wind’ was the root cause of the problem. I was half expecting them to blame Piers. But the structural analysis of what we face was completely absent.

Wild weather may be what we must learn to live with. But at least ‘own’ it as a consequence of the climate damage already done, and the rationale for transformative change.

Instead, the political cross-hairs were focussed those who would stop us making things worse; criminalising all such disruptive forewarnings. So it was that the government announced –

“… we are tabling an amendment to introduce a new offence of interfering with the operation of key infrastructure, such as the strategic road network, railways, sea ports airports, oil refineries and printing presses, carrying a maximum penalty of 12 months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.”

So, no freezing of energy company dividends or executive bonuses until grid security is reinforced; no imprisonment or unlimited fines for incompetent energy company executives; none for those accelerating climate collapse through expanded oil and gas exploration; none for those pushing the cancerous growth of exploitative production and consumption. But if your gran blocks the road, protesting against the polluting of our kids future, then she – and her likes – are to become the disruptive threat that must be criminalised.

This is the ‘losing the plot’ world we are drifting into; a world where democracy dies and barbarism wins.

Covid to the rescue?

Perversely, the more politics fails, the more democracy gets stripped of the disruptive powers today’s crisis needs, the more that adversity throws us a lifeline.

The truth is that even progressive voices live in denial of the economics needed to deliver radical carbon reductions. A better way of living offers still itself, but this involves travelling less, reducing short-term consumption, re-using more of what we have, and restoring the soil fertility that life itself depends on.

You could argue that Covid is forcing us to accept a large number of these constraints. But the politics surrounding the debate are less about transformative change and more about what we put up with, until ‘normality’ is restored.

To its credit, the Green Alliance is one of those bucking the trend, with some serious work on the sort of pillars tomorrow’s ‘normal’ must be built on. Its latest offering – ‘Not going the extra mile’1 – tackles our addiction to travel.

Successive British governments have completely failed to acknowledge that the whole of the transport sector must live within a carbon budget that reduces by at least 10% a year from now on in. Forget offsetting. We are talking about direct annual CO2 reductions, none of which are deliverable without travelling less.

Green Alliance at least dips a toe into water that Britain’s major political parties still fight shy of; putting climate politics rather than pandemics in the metaphorical driving seat. I just wish Labour would follow suit.

And what begins with roads must then move on to aviation. No amount of ‘jet zero’ promises or off-setting will avoid the climate precipice.

The debate would force the pace, too, of our approach to shipping and globalised trade. Disrupting international supply lines may be one of the best ways of slowing deforestation. And heavy ‘carbon border taxation’ may be a far more effective block on the external dumping of waste into developing economies than any amount of on-line


More localised economics would force us to rediscover forgotten interdependencies and strengthen supply line accountability. Large parts of the global economy are already revisiting such virtues. What‘s missing is the international layer – a global Green New Deal – to include the world’s poor. What this requires is cash rather than exploitative production contracts. It isn’t difficult, we just need new global leadership. And there’s the rub.

In the same way that there is no answer to the global Covid pandemic without global access to vaccines, so too with sustainable global economics. The financial answer lies in taxing corporate and speculative wealth, not in placing a charge on the value of your gran’s house.

It needs a politics that points in a radically different direction. For the Labour Party, one photo captured the quandary it faces.

After the post-reshuffle meeting, Keir Starmer led his new Shadow Cabinet out to meet the press. As they walked over a zebra crossing, the words on the road in front of them said simply ‘Look Left’.

Whether today’s leadership has the vision needed to do so is another matter.

Alan Simpson

Dec 2021



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